Discuss how concepts of fatherhood and motherhood have changed over time

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The responsibilities of mothers and fathers in our society are constantly changing, depending on the unique circumstances of each family.

This essay explores the historical notions of fatherhood and motherhood, with a specific focus on contemporary times and the rise of the ‘new dad’, surrogate mothers, and single-parent households. It is crucial to recognize that when examining this topic from a historical standpoint, generalizations may arise as our comprehension primarily stems from middle-class white families, which might not encompass society entirely. Additionally, investigating other eras poses difficulties due to restricted available resources.

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In this essay, I will explore the distinction between the idea and reality of motherhood and fatherhood, taking into account both idealized notions and actual experiences. Firstly, I will analyze how the concepts of motherhood and fatherhood are connected. Then, I will delve into their evolution throughout time. The language we use to discuss mothers and fathers and their responsibilities can shed light on these concepts. Chodorow (1978) argues that both men and women can be seen as ‘mothering’ a child, suggesting that being a mother involves not just giving birth but also nurturing and socializing the child.

Extended families and adoption can both contribute to the upbringing of a child in many societies. The concept of ‘mothering’ can also include men who take care of children. However, when it comes to men, we exclusively use the term ‘fathering’ to describe their role in raising a child. Even in same-sex female couple families, one partner would not be referred to as the ‘father’, but rather as their social father. This suggests that biological ties are closely associated with the idea of ‘fathering’. In a similar vein, Laquer (1990) argues that motherhood is an undeniable reality while fatherhood is considered more abstract.

Laquer (1990) argues that motherhood is acknowledged as a reality due to its essential role in the care and nurturing of children, while fatherhood is perceived more conceptually. In a similar vein, Coltrane (1997) proposes that “mothering” encompasses continuous caregiving and nurturing, whereas “fathering” often denotes a singular sexual act and financial obligation (Coltrane, 1997, p4). Consequently, the terminology employed when discussing motherhood and fatherhood can shape our comprehension of their fundamental principles.

It is challenging to accurately trace the ideas of parenthood in the past due to historical bias. The majority of historical accounts are from the viewpoint of the white, middle and upper class western family, which means they reflect their own biases. Additionally, most of the available historical evidence comes from this particular societal group, which presents obvious challenges when trying to depict the concepts of parenthood throughout history. Since the concepts of parenthood are closely connected to the notion of family, I may also explore the history of the family to gain further insights into the main issues.

The bioevolutionary approach, as stated in Chodorow’s work from 1978, aims to explain why women traditionally became mothers and men took on the role of hunters. The theory suggests that due to a combination of shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates, women spent most of their reproductive years pregnant in order to ensure the survival of the population. Consequently, it was not physically feasible for women to engage in hunting activities, leaving them responsible for gathering small foods and caring for existing children. However, Chodorow (1978) acknowledges that this explanation only applies to societies with a small population size, simple social organization, and difficulties in obtaining basic necessities.

As societies advanced, the traditional argument that women should constantly be pregnant became irrelevant. Feudalism emerged with the progress of history, cementing a patriarchal structure within society. In these household systems, the father held authority over the family, and social status was determined by one’s connection to the paternal lineage. During this era, women lacked legal rights, while the father bore responsibility for the family, servants, local tenants, and peasants on his land.

Engels (1972) argues that the family emerged primarily as an economic unit during this time period. Its purpose was to regulate inheritance and manage surplus products in society that were not required by the community. Within this family structure, the concept of parenthood originated. While motherhood involved taking care of children, it is important to note that many women in peasant families also engaged in agricultural activities alongside men. In contrast, the father’s role appeared to be centered on setting a model and guiding the family towards economic prosperity.

Over time, a shift occurred where production took place in the home under the supervision of mothers while fathers worked outside. This resulted in the emergence of two distinct domains: one within the household and another beyond it. Women remained responsible for raising children and managing household tasks, with a particular focus on instructing girls, while fathers assumed responsibility for training boys.

Many feminist writers argue that the role training or cognitive learning by mothers contributes to the ongoing practice of mothering by women, which is an example of socialization. Chodorow (1978) presents this idea in her work and acknowledges its value but denies that it fully explains why women continue to embrace motherhood. This perspective on parenthood was prevalent before industrialization and capitalism. However, with changes in production and a shift away from home, the distinction between public and private spheres becomes even more pronounced.

According to BBC online, in the past, women were typically limited to domestic responsibilities at home while men focused on business and politics. Mothers primarily took care of their husbands and children, with less involvement in household production. Parenting became more individualized and was influenced by religious beliefs. Queen Victoria was regarded as the ultimate representation of femininity and domestic life during the late 19th century.

Motherhood was depicted as a calling to which every woman was fated. Those who chose to refute this notion became societal outcasts, as motherhood was deemed the ultimate accomplishment for women. As society gradually became more aware of social issues, motherhood also came to signify women’s significant societal responsibility in raising well-adjusted, content children. The advent of schools and external childcare options initiated a transformation in the concept of motherhood. With more free time on their hands and the task of educating their children relinquished, women shifted their focus to engaging in public endeavors.

Advancements in healthcare and living standards led to a decline in infant mortality rates and a decrease in women’s fertility. However, the two global conflicts greatly influenced women’s roles, affecting both their role as mothers and fathers. With men leaving for war, women were called upon to take over their positions. Moreover, the high number of fatalities resulted in many women becoming widows and children being left fatherless.

Due to wars, there was a lack of men in a particular age group, leading many women to support their families and work. The concept of parenthood underwent significant changes in the 20th Century due to multiple factors. One important development was the rise of women’s rights and feminism. In 1918, women obtained voting rights and gradually gained equal opportunities in employment and education. Simultaneously, traditional family roles started changing as divorce became more accessible, resulting in fewer marriages.

In 1923, women were given equal rights to men in terms of divorce. The introduction of the term ‘irretrievable’ breakdown in 1969 led to a significant rise in divorce cases. National Statistics [online] reports that there were 27,224 divorces in 1961, which doubled to 55,556 by 1969 and further increased to 124,556 by 1972. This surge in divorces has resulted in a continuous decline in the marriage rate.

The peak number of first-time marriages was seen in 1970 at 340,000. Nevertheless, according to National Statistics [online], this figure dramatically dropped to a record low of only 158,560 marriages in the year 2001. Consequently, there has been a rise in lone parent families.

National Statistics [online] indicates that one out of every four children lived with single parents as of 2004 compared to one out of fourteen children living under similar circumstances back in 1972. Developments within the field of medicine have also impacted the concept of parenthood.

The pill was introduced in 1961, giving women the choice of when to become mothers. Its popularity is evident in the significant increase in users, from 50,000 to 1 million in the UK alone between 1962 and 1969. Currently, around 11 million women use the pill, excluding other available forms of contraception. Another medical breakthrough, artificial insemination, has also had a profound impact on parenthood. The birth of the first test tube baby in July 1978 led to various issues like surrogate mothers and donor insemination. The widely publicized case of Baby M in 1987 exemplifies the complexities of surrogate motherhood.

This text presents the topic of surrogate mothers and their impact on the concept of motherhood. In today’s society, where infertility is becoming more prevalent, many couples turn to contract motherhood to fulfill their desire for children. However, Gibson (1994) criticizes this practice and emphasizes how our materialistic culture tends to view human beings as commodities. While some argue that women now have more control over their bodies, Gibson (1994) suggests that this control is actually diminishing, especially in relation to childbirth. Mothers often must adhere to the preferences of fathers or doctors regarding issues like abortion, fetal surgery, and childbirth.

According to Gibson (1994), there is a growing tendency among physicians and judges to view pregnant women as merely the “fetal environment” and sometimes as hostile towards the fetus, resulting in a need for protection. This clinical perspective portrays the child as an object that can be owned or purchased, reflecting a societal emphasis on the traditional family and the necessity of owning such a child for happiness. However, in the Baby M case, the surrogate mother was unable to relinquish the child after giving birth and holding it.

Laquer (1990) examines a case from 1978 involving Mary K and Jhordan, where donors seeking access to a child is observed. Jhordan, a friend of a lesbian couple, donated sperm in an informal agreement to help them conceive a child. However, after the child was born, Jhordan desired an active role in their life. This situation highlights the challenges arising from this new technology, as it introduces an additional individual into the parenting dynamic.

The current social challenges we face revolve around the clash between traditional religious and government values that prioritize the nuclear family model, and our society’s reality, which now includes families with three parents. Situations involving surrogacy or donation require determining legal custody of a child, similar to divorce cases. Conflicts in contract motherhood cases primarily focus on establishing who has made a greater physical contribution to the baby – whether it is the biological mother or father – as demonstrated in the Baby M case. However, it is crucial to recognize that biology does not solely determine motherhood and fatherhood; they also involve acts of nurturing and providing emotional and physical care for a child.

In the 20th century, there has been a shift in the perception of motherhood and fatherhood. Men, including donors, now desire more involvement while women as surrogate mothers are content with being uninvolved with their children. Coltrane (1997) uses the example of Gary and Susan Carter to illustrate this change. Chodorow (1978) suggests that both boys and girls have nurturing abilities but men suppress them to maintain masculinity. The Carters defy societal norms by equally sharing work and childcare responsibilities, proving that motherhood and fatherhood are not drastically different nowadays. Smith’s (1995) analysis of the ‘Children of the 90’s’ study shows an increase in fathers’ participation in caring for their babies from 1950 to 1990.

Similar to the Carters, research also indicates an increase in mothers’ employment. However, unlike the Carters, many cases examined show that it was not the father who took on childcare responsibilities but instead a female relative or childcare organization. Nevertheless, this perspective only represents one aspect of fatherhood. It is important to acknowledge that 1 out of every 4 children live in single-parent households and statistics reveal that 22% of children live with a single mother (National Statistics [online]). The media has depicted fathers as absent figures, leading to concerns about holding them financially responsible for their children through the child support agency. Each lone parent’s experience varies; some choose to be alone while others become single parents due to divorce or separation, or even the loss of a partner. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that being a lone parent can strain both the financial and emotional aspects of the parent-child relationship.

Despite the negative portrayal and perceived burden on government resources, there are advantages to being a single parent. Shaw (1991) found that while many women recognize the stigma associated with being a “lone parent,” they still view it as their optimal choice and are reluctant to remarry and establish a traditional family. Considering the intricacies of motherhood and fatherhood is no easy task; however, I have addressed certain issues and contemporary challenges related to these concepts, highlighting various forms of parenting.

We all come to this issue with our own personal baggage from our families, which makes it even harder to view objectively. Therefore, reaching a definitive conclusion about the changes in motherhood and fatherhood and their reasons is challenging. Family and ideas about parenting are highly subjective, differing not only over time but also among social classes, races, locations, and age groups. These concepts are constantly evolving and influenced by various factors. While religion and government may try to dictate the “correct” way of raising children, the cases mentioned here show that there is no one universally right approach. Nevertheless, society has an inherent need to reproduce regardless of the methods used or the resulting consequences.

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